5 Smartest States in America

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- If you're looking to find America's smartest people, go west, young man -- or at least go Midwest.

An analysis of several key educational measures shows Minnesota and some other Midwest states beat the rest of America when it comes to academic excellence.

"There's a wide variety of educational achievement between states," Boston College education professor Ana Martinez-Aleman says. "Places like Minnesota have very strong, populist traditions about the importance of education."

We recently looked at four factors -- SAT math scores, percentage of citizens with high school diplomas, how many young people attend college and how many high schoolers watch too much TV -- to assess each state's academic-achievement level.

Our research uncovered huge differences between states.

For instance, 19.3% of residents in both Texas and California lack high school educations -- nearly triple Wyoming's 7.7% dropout rate.

Similarly, less than 17% of Utah high schoolers watch three hours of TV or more per night -- roughly a third of Mississippi's 44.9% rate.

Martinez-Aleman, who also serves as editor of the scholarly publication Educational Policy Journal, attributes many of the differences to how much money each state spends on public education.

"There's a cause-and-effect relationship between educational spending and educational achievement," she says.

The expert says states such as Minnesota have long prided themselves on funding public schools generously, while southern states that fared poorly in our analysis often have lower taxes and limited academic spending.

Martinez-Aleman adds that Mountain states -- which generally ranked highly in our analysis -- can spend fairly large amounts of money per student because they have sparse populations.

Here's a look at the five states that came out on top of our analysis, which used the most-recent data available from The College Board and Educational Policy Journal's sister company, CQ Press.

We ranked states based on an average of where they placed among all 50 states and the District of Columbia on the four metrics analyzed. (Nine states and D.C. lacked data on TV watching by high schoolers, so we rated them based on their average scores for the three other criteria studied.)

All Scholastic Aptitude Test scores are from this year, while the percentage of students taking the SAT is based on average figures calculated by The College Board for 2002, last year and this year.

Percentage figures for people in each state lacking high school or general-equivalency degrees are as of 2010 and refer to residents 25 or older, while college enrollment rates for each state's young people are as of 2008. Television-watching statistics are as of 2009.

Fifth-smartest state in America: Wyoming

Wyoming ranks near the top of our list mostly because 92.3% of its residents have high school degrees -- the highest proportion for any U.S. state or the District of Columbia.

The Equality State also has few equals when it comes to TV watching among high school students. Just 22% of Wyoming high schoolers watch three hours of TV or more per day -- the third-lowest percentage nationwide.

Wyoming also comes in an above-average 23rd place in terms of the percentage of young people in college (63%).

Similarly, the state's graduating high schoolers also averaged 579 on the SAT math test out of a possible 800 -- the 10th-best showing nationwide.

That said, just 5% of graduating Wyoming students took the SAT. Experts say such a low turnout can artificially push a state's average higher, as it typically means only the best students took the test.

Still, Martinez-Aleman theorizes Wyoming scored well in general partly because of the state's small population, which makes it easier to generously fund public schools on a per-student basis.

She also says rural states have few big-city school districts, "and that's a big advantage in many ways. The larger a school system is, the more complex and expensive it'll be -- and you might not get good results ."

Fourth-smartest state in America: Utah

Just 16.3% of Utah high schoolers watch three hours or more of TV per day -- the lowest rate nationwide.

The Beehive State also ties Iowa for sixth place in terms of how many adults have high school degrees (90.6%).

Lastly, Utah comes in 13th place in two other categories: the percentage of young people in college (68.1%) and average SAT math scores (566 -- a tie with Oklahoma).

Martinez-Aleman theorizes that just as with Wyoming, a small population makes it easier for Utah to spend lots of money per student.

But also like Wyoming, few Utah teens took the SAT this year -- just 6% of graduating high schoolers. As noted, that can skew a state's average score upward.

Third-smartest state in America: Nebraska

The Cornhusker State knows a thing or two about raising a crop of kids who'll stay in school.

Just 9.6% of Nebraska's residents lack high school degrees -- America's seventh-best showing.

Some 71% of Nebraskan young adults also attend college (eighth place nationwide), while the state's high schoolers averaged 585 of the SAT math test -- also an eighth-place showing. (There are no figures available for TV watching among Cornhusker teens.)

Martinez-Aleman says large Midwest states such as Nebraska have long had a tradition of "good sound public education."

Still, the state's high average SAT math score probably benefited from the fact that just 5% of graduating students took the test this year.

Second-smartest state in America: Iowa

Iowa places third nationally in two of our criteria: the number of young people attending college (93.5%) and average SAT math scores (606 -- tying Minnesota, although just 3% of graduating Iowa students took the test).

Some 90.6% of Hawkeye State adults also have high school degrees. As noted, that ties Utah for the sixth-best rate nationwide. (There are no figures available for how many Iowa teens watch lots of TV.)

Martinez-Aleman taught at Iowa's Grinnell College for seven years and saw firsthand how strongly the state supports public schools.

"Iowa has a very long history of being very progressive regarding K-12 education," she says.

No. 1 smartest state in America: Minnesota

Minnesota is our study's valedictorian primarily because the state came in no lower than fourth place in any measure analyzed in which there were figures for the state available. (There are no statistics for heavy TV watching among Minnesota high schoolers.)

The North Star State placed second among the percentage of adults with high school degrees (91.8%), as well as fourth in terms of how many young adults there attend college (80.4%).

As noted, Minnesota also tied Iowa for third place on average SAT math scores -- garnering a 606, although just 7% of graduating Minnesotans took the test.

Martinez-Aleman isn't surprised the state topped our honor roll.

"Minnesota has always had a strong reputation of supporting public education," she says.

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